Gilbert & George, The Corpsing Pictures @Lehmann Maupin

JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 color photographic works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry gallery, and the basement gallery.

The following works have been included in the show:

  • 1 four panel mixed media work, 2022, sized roughly 59×50 inches, unique
  • 3 six panel mixed media works, 2022, sized roughly 75×59 inches (or the reverse), unique
  • 3 nine panel mixed media works, 2022, sized roughly 75×89 inches (or the reverse), unique
  • 2 twelve panel mixed media works, 2022, sized roughly 75×119, 89×100 inches, unique
  • 1 fifteen panel mixed media work, 2022, sized roughly 89×125 inches, unique
  • 2 eighteen panel mixed media works, 2022, sized roughly 89×150 inches, unique
  • 1 twenty-one panel mixed media work, 2022, sized roughly 89×174 inches, unique
  • 2 twenty-four panel mixed media works, 2022, sized roughly 119×150, 100×178 inches, unique
  • 2 twenty-five panel mixed media works, sized roughly 119×125, 125×148 inches, unique
  • 1 thirty panel mixed media work, sized roughly 125×178 inches, unique

A catalog of the exhibit has been published by the gallery. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: For many artists, as they reach their eighties and beyond, the practical but often complicated questions of legacies, future plans, and estates start to become more urgently top of mind. The British artistic duo of Gilbert & George (with Gilbert now 79 and George 81) addressed many of these issues with the opening this past spring of The Gilbert & George Centre (here) in the Spitalfields neighborhood of east London. Housed in an old brewery and pub complex (which has been freshly renovated), the free-to-the-public space provides a permanent location for the display, conservation, and study of their work. It’s a seemingly smart, local solution to many of the usual artistic legacy problems, and one that both keeps control over their artistic output and contributes to the character of the district where they have lived and worked for decades.

But all the talk of legacies and endings seems to have touched a raw nerve for two artists, as their most recent series of images playfully but emphatically declares that they are, indeed, not dead yet. In “The Corpsing Pictures”, Gilbert & George feign death in a variety of setups, with bones used as the visual motif to connect the different compositions together. The title of the project refers to the theater term “corpsing”, where an actor breaks character by laughing or moving while playing dead. Gilbert & George do plenty of this kind of pantomime joking around in these pictures, adding a layer of cheeky gallows or gravedigger humor to the process of visually entombing themselves in bones.

Even just a few steps into the first gallery, it’s hard not to miss how consistently red these new compositions are. Stylistically, they build on the process the artists used in their pandemic-era “New Normal Pictures” (reviewed here) from 2021, where black-and-white source images were manipulated (generally to place Gilbert & George in the frame together or to layer together component images) and then partially tinted in a range of bright colors. In “The Corpsing Pictures”, a more limited palette has been employed – red is used for the suits and ties of the two artists, as well as for most of the background images (of sidewalks, leafy debris, buildings, and chains); the human bones are left untinted white; the faces are tinted pink like skin; and the ropes, a few forked animal bones, and the bottoms of the artists’ Church’s shoes are tinted golden yellow. The result is a series of works that feels tightly interconnected, each image a riff on a common but constrained set of thematic and visual elements.

Aside from a couple of works which feature close ups of the two artists’ disembodied heads, most of the works on view here offer Gilbert & George as full figures, lying variously in what might be a grave, box, or casket, with the bottoms of their feet visible, like corpses. In some pictures, they are lying in the same direction; in others, they are placed in opposing head-to-toe arrangements; and in a few, they are laid across each other, in a criss-crossed jumble. Their expressions are quaintly and endearingly understated, in a kind of knowingly bad actor manner. They appear shocked, with wide open eyes, or with hands to their face or covering their mouths in mock horror. They pretend to sleep, with prayerful hands as a pillow, or arms crossed as though dozing. They try not to hear, with hands over their ears or fingers stuck inside. And they move back and forth between tension and calm, with stares and fists clutched in frustration balanced by calmer hands pressing down and faces trying to relax. These various personas and moods are simplistic near caricatures, the seriousness of death undermined with sly irreverence.

Gilbert & George go on to have impertinent fun with the bone motif, rearranging the individual white bones into decorative patterns, symbols, and designs. In some works, the bones become a kind of writing, creating an equals sign (=), an X for a kiss, and various Roman numerals, and even spelling out a chucklingly dark “HA” in the face of mortality. In others, they create geometric lattices and grills that screen the duo, borders that frame certain setups, and more elaborate built up designs that resemble wheels and flowers. As an unconventional mark making technique, the bones are surprisingly clever and versatile, becoming straw mattresses under bodies, ribbed neckties, and the messy debris of a dump. A few works add in woven ropes as an additional organizing and line making motif, alternately wrapping, binding, netting, and even underlaying the two figures.

Perhaps at some future moment when Gilbert & George are indeed gone, we will look back on these pictures and decide to call them their “late work”, and everyone will have a few nostalgic almost-laughs. In these works, Gilbert & George wrestle with their inevitable end, but do so with the kind of witty self-deprecating conceptual playfulness that very few artists have delivered with as much consistency and verve. Joking with death is the kind of unlikely outsider provocation Gilbert & George have successfully mined for material again and again across their long joint career, and even now as artistic elder statesmen with little left to prove, they are clearly still searching for resonant transgressions that can keep us off-balance.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from £70000 t0 £130000, based on the number of panels. In general, works by Gilbert & George can be found at auction with regularity at this point, mostly in Contemporary Art sales as opposed to Photographs sales. Prices for their multi-panel works have ranged between roughly $50000 and $1800000 in the past decade, with a few single image or editioned works at lower prices.

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